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Astros, Cards downright defensive
10/19/2004 3:01 AM ET
HOUSTON -- A half-century after the greatest defensive play in Major League playoff history, the National League Championship Series paused from its record-pace slugfest Monday to celebrate the art of fielding.

Willie Mays would have been proud.

There was even a ball hit a country mile to dead-center at Minute Maid Park and chased down by the center fielder. That play by Carlos Beltran in the eighth inning of Game 5 might not have been as spectacular as "The Catch" Mays made in the 1954 World Series, but Beltran's diving catch one inning earlier was a wonder to behold -- and so typical of a game that was scoreless until Jeff Kent's game-winning homer in the ninth.

"All aspects of the game you have to enjoy," Astros manager Phil Garner said after his team's 3-0 victory over the Cardinals pulled Houston to within one game of the World Series. "It just looked like everybody was going to catch everything you hit."

The Cardinals played errorless ball for the ninth time in as many postseason games, and they were never more stunning this fall in the field although it seemed little consolation. They helped starter Woody Williams in a pitcher's duel by delivering a pair of stunning plays at the infield corners on diving efforts by Scott Rolen and Albert Pujols.

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In the fourth inning, Jeff Bagwell led off by ripping a 2-2 pitch inside the third-base bag. Rolen dived to his right, a la Brooks Robinson, with his momentum carrying him across the foul line. From his knees, Rolen fired a laser throw across the diamond and got Bagwell by a step. It proved especially important, because Williams proceeded to allow a base on balls and a hit batsman before retiring the side.

In the sixth, Beltran had the green light on a 3-0 pitch and raked a liner inside the bag at first. Pujols dived to his left to knock the ball down, then retrieved it and tossed to Williams covering first. It was already the third 3-1 putout of the game for the Cardinals, who were working to perfection the little things you hone on a Spring Training field months earlier in sunny Florida. Throw in that Kent gapper that Reggie Sanders chased down in the seventh, and it was big play after big play.

"Well, I'm such a rabid Cardinal fan -- I appreciate our defense more than I appreciate theirs," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who was not overly eager to answer a question about how both teams had glistened defensively. "But it was really a well-played game, well-pitched game. Brutal ending."

The Astros were giving the same kind of stunning support in the field for Brandon Backe. In the third inning, Sanders scorched a line drive inside the bag at third, and Morgan Ensberg lunged to his right and snared it in the air. Backe was in the early stages of a no-hit bid, and that was a big play at that point.

Enter Beltran. This is what kind of night it was in Game 5. He had been on a record home run pace, already tied with Barry Bonds for the most homers in a single postseason with eight, and on this night his main contribution was with the glove. This was a series that was on a pace to shatter the NLCS record for most homers -- 19 coming in, four shy of the record -- but on this night it was the defense that pitchers relied on rather than the bats.

Now Beltran was personifying the defensive intensity of this game -- and further demonstrating his all-around excellence. With two out in the seventh and Backe settling down again after losing the no-hitter in the sixth, Edgar Renteria lofted a fly to the gap in left-center. The Astros' center fielder chased after it and dived head-first, cradling the ball in that trademark gray-colored glove as he slid on his chest.

Facts machine
Only four teams have been held to just one hit in a League Championship Series game:
Team Date Result Pitcher(s)
OAKOct. 9, 1974OAK 2, BAL 1Cuellar, Grimsley
PITOct. 12, 1990CIN 2, PIT 1Jackson, Charlton, Myers
SEAOct. 14, 2000NYY 5, SEA 0Clemens
STLOct. 18, 2004HOU 3, STL 0Backe, Lidge

"Renteria is a guy who likes to hit the ball to right-center so I was playing him off that way," Beltran said. "As soon as he hit the ball I just told myself, 'Try to catch the ball.' When I was getting close to the ball I just decided to dive. Plays like that, the only thing you can do is react. I just reacted on that play right there."

Minute Maid Park rumbled. Everytime they thought they had seen it all in this series, they continued to see something more. And Beltran was not done yet. In the eighth, one Cardinal batter later, Sanders drove a ball from Backe to the deepest part of Minute Maid -- toward the 436-foot sign in dead-center.

Flash back for a moment to Sept. 29, 1954, at New York's old Polo Grounds. Mays was playing center for the Giants in the World Series against heavily favored Cleveland, and he turned his back and ran after a ball hit by Vic Wertz, hauling the ball in over his shoulder in what forever became known as "The Catch."

This was not "The Catch." It was different. Mays completely turned his back on home plate and ran it down. Beltran was unique in his own way -- making it look easier than most any other center fielder could in today's game. He seemingly floated back from his position, his left side facing home plate, and as the ball was still in the air he reached the grassy knoll known as Tal's Hill. It is named for Tal Smith, the Astros' president of baseball operations. Beltran simply backpedaled, on an incline, and routinely brought the mighty blast into his glove. Maybe no one could have made that play look so easy.

Beltran was traded from the Royals to Astros in July, and he was asked Monday if practicing on Tal's Hill had paid off in the biggest game of his career.

"Yeah, I did practice that with (first base coach Jose Cruz)," Beltran said. "He hit that ball real good and I was playing deep. I was able to get up that hill without tumbling and I was able to make the catch."

It wasn't The Catch, per se, but it was one of many defensive marvels that made Game 5 of the NLCS a night to appreciate.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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